nōn laudatis

External affirmation is the fuel of academic progress and its natural corollary is external rejection. We write papers and submit them and, more often than not, we get reviews that run from gentle refusal to sadistic cruelty. I am more familiar with the first. I have now received something close to the second. I won’t use this entry to complain about that review. Frankly, it’s not constructive. The paper was turned down and there are really only three options for the rejected writer:

1— Hold your nose and try and scrape something useful and constructive out of the foetid mess that is the bile-soaked review, use that to revise the paper, and submit it to a different journal.

2— Tediously dissect the negative review, in a futile attempt to reassure yourself that it’s the reviewer’s problem and not yours. Clearly this reader is a mean and petty husk of an academic who may have actually recognized you and simply can’t accept that you have any real ability or original thought. Doing this will sort of spread the unpleasantness around, such that it coats everything you look at with a thin sheen of oily self-loathing.

3— Shrug pathetically, and with an air of defeat and self-doubt, pitch the paper into the material or ethereal recycle bin and go on with your life, short one paper submission.

Most academics, and the ones that spend time writing books about academic writing, argue for option 1, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Their arguments in favour of re-submission are all slightly different but they all agree on the basic principle which is to re-submit until the thing gets published. Rejection is the natural state of all academic writing. Acceptance is never the safe bet, statistically. This is more pronounced in the sciences, and those disciplines have the advantage of actual measurable rates of acceptance and rejection as a measure for individuals. It’s a little tricky for historians or some other humanities specialists because there are fewer journals in the first place. Never the less, the advice holds.

Quite a few of these same writers suggest some variant on option 2, but only in conjunction with option 1, and obviously, they don’t frame it in quite the same self-indulgently sadomasochistic way I have done. Clearly, we know where I stand on this. Venting has its place, but not here. If you spend too much time chewing on the injustice of it all you will only irritate the wound itself. Stop picking at it. Yes, it will scar, but if you don’t let it heal, it will get infected. I know this can hurt, and I would be lying if I said I was not hurt by this recent review. But that reviewer doesn’t care about my feelings. Neither does the editor. I can’t change that reviewers mind. I can, however, fix up the paper, as best I can, based on what I know are legitimate problems, and move on. Odds will improve with each submission and even that 2nd version, sent off to a new journal, is still not guaranteed to find a home, but it won’t find any home, where it will be read, if you pick option 3.

No-one supports option 3, not unless there is some fundamental reason why you shouldn’t re-submit elsewhere. Reasons would include, say, turning the submission into a book chapter for an edited collection instead or combining it with other essays for a monograph, or because you suddenly found something that made the original paper irrelevant, and you will replace that submission with something else. You see where I am going with this?

Any paper you wrote is worth the effort to re-submit. It is very unlikely that it will take you anything like the same amount of time and energy and stress to clean up a submission that it took to research, draft, re-draft, scrap, draft again, and again, the first time you did it.

And so, once I have a few hours to rub together again, I will pull out that 13 month old manuscript and give it a good spit-shine (and fix the embarrassing grammatical errors that probably gave that reviewer a hemorrhage) and send it someplace else. Hopefully they will get back to me in less time. I also hope they don’t send it to the same reviewer as the other journal.


For those who have the interest, the following books and articles discuss the whole re-submission thing in a useful way.

Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, (American Psychological Association: Washington, 2007). [Particularly pp. 91-102.]

James Hartley, Academic writing and publishing, (Routledge: New York, 2008). [His chapter on this is a fantastic example of how several different reviewers can read the same paper and one will think its brilliant and the other will seriously question the author’s intellectual ability and facility with the English language.]

S. K. Donovan, ‘The Importance of Resubmitting Rejected Papers’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 38 (2007), pp. 151–155.

Brian Martin, ‘Surviving Referees’ Reports’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 39 (2008), pp. 307–311. [These two should be read as a set since they are so useful.]

Rowena Murray, Writing for Academic Journals, (Open University Press: Maidenhead, 2009). [All of chapter 9 is devoted to this. I particularly like her concept of the ‘grim reviewer.’]





3 thoughts on “nōn laudatis

  1. The news that there’s a Journal of Scholarly Publishing makes me despair at how self-absorbed academia can be.

    I’ve had some really stupid objections from reviewers but managed to persuade the editors that I was right. I’m not sure if they were deliberately playing devil’s advocate or if they really were that ignorant. Sometimes I suspect that reviewers really don’t like my work but can’t find any substantial grounds for recommending rejection so they get pedantic about minor things. Blind peer review is the worst system apart from all the others…

    • In defence of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, it’s aimed at all those academics who happen to run journals in their ‘spare time’ which is the way of things for 80% of journals in the humanities. Something like Historical Research has one ‘staff member’ who also does clerical work for the society and all the rest of the editorial work is done by board members and other clerical people who have been press-ganged into the job. Lots of editors come to these positions knowing only what it was like on the otherside, as a submitter or reviewer.

      That being said, yes, some reviewers seem to take the opportunity to nit-pick about every little thing, but that’s not always important, for the editor who has the actual say in accepting a paper or rejecting it. So far I have had only this one uncharitable rejection. Other reviews were still of the ‘not good enough’ variety but they usually offered more in the way of usable advice. Revise and re-submit is always possible if the editor says, straight-off, ‘no thanks.’ But, this is how it goes, and I would rather deal with one crank, than have a weak paper published and deal with a crowd of cranks, who feel they need to tell me how bad my punctuation is.

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